LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) _ An American Airlines jetliner with 145 people aboard ran off the runway, broke into pieces and burst into flames after landing in a fierce hailstorm, killing at least nine people, including the pilot.

Investigators want to know what the pilot was told about the violent weather before he attempted to land Flight 1420 at the Little Rock airport just before midnight Tuesday. They said, however, that it was too early to say whether the rapidly moving storm caused or contributed to the crash.

The flight data and cockpit voice recorders, which were taken to Washington for analysis, should reveal what the pilot knew.

``A fire started at the front of the plane and spread back,'' passenger Barrett Baber said. ``Once the smoke got too thick, there was nothing we could do. People were screaming, `God, please save us!'''

The turbulent flight from Dallas to Little Rock had been delayed two hours because of bad weather. Some passengers said the plane seemed to be coming in for landing faster than normal, although others said it did not seem unusual.

The MD-82 slid off the left side of a runway, past an access road and whipped around a metal tower.

The stanchion acted like a can opener, peeling back the plane's thin shell on the left side from the captain's controls through the first-class section. When the plane finally came to a stop, its tail was facing away from the runway on a low spot near an Arkansas River backwater.

Fire engulfed the plane as fuel spilled. With flames closing in and their clothes drenched with aviation fuel, terrified passengers squeezed through a twisted emergency exit and scrambled out gaping holes in the fuselage. Others jumped off a burning wing into the swamp.

``All I thought was that I was going to die,'' passenger Bonnie Montgomery said. ``Everyone was pushing and pulling to get out of that plane. We were on our hands and knees, and the smoke was so thick we couldn't breathe. Even I pushed a few people, because your natural instinct to survive just kicks in.''

Hospitals said they treated 83 people for injuries, mostly cuts and burns. Another 51 people were unhurt and were reunited with friends and relatives in a theater at a nearby aerospace museum. The coroner said nine people were killed, leaving two people unaccounted for.

The fatalities were the first aboard a U.S. carrier in nearly 1 1/2 years. They also were the first in a commercial carrier at Little Rock's airport in its 82-year history.

A violent downpour, steady winds of 50 mph and gusts of up to 75 mph were reported in the area just before the plane landed. The storm had a peak gust of 87 mph six minutes after the crash.

Radar images reviewed Wednesday by the National Weather Service showed the storm arriving at Little Rock's airport about the same time the jet arrived.

``The scenario that the storm approached one end of the runway as the plane approached from the other probably is correct,'' meteorologist George Wilken said.

American Airlines executive vice president Bob Baker said regular weather updates were relayed to the plane's captain, Richard Buschmann.

George Black, a spokesman for the National Transportation Safety Board, said investigators want to know what Buschmann was told about the approaching storm and the deteriorating conditions.

``It's ultimately a pilot's decision to land or not, but they have to base that on the information they have,'' he said.

There was no distress call from the cockpit before the landing, said William Shumann, a Federal Aviation Administration spokesman.

American Airlines' chief pilot said he would not have attempted to land the plane if wind speeds exceeded 57.5 mph.

``If someone told me there were 50 knot gusts at the airport, I would be leaving town,'' said Cecil Ewell, who oversees all American Airlines' pilots.

Black also said that power went out at the airport about the time of the accident, although he said it wasn't known whether the accident caused the power outage or whether any power outage contributed to the accident.

Buschmann apparently died at the controls. The first officer was badly injured but survived.

A check of the plane's maintenance records revealed no major problems. Twelve years ago, the plane lost power in one of its engines during a landing in Las Vegas because the housing around a part had worn away.

President Clinton said he and Hillary Rodham Clinton were saddened to learn of the crash. ``We join the American people in extending our deepest sympathies to the families of those who died or were injured,'' Clinton said in a statement.

The deaths were the first in an U.S. commercial airline accident since Dec. 28, 1997, when a woman was killed aboard a United Airlines 747 that encountered severe turbulence over the Pacific.

Last year, aviation officials celebrated a fatality-free year aboard U.S. commercial flights. U.S. airlines also had one of their safest years ever in 1997, a year after one of the deadliest on record.